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Pollution causes one in six deaths worldwide

In 2015, pollution killed three times the number of people as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined, and 15 times the number of people killed by war and violence. The study, by the environmental nonprofit Pure Earth and published in The Lancet, blames pollution for 16 percent of all global deaths. Richard Fuller, president of Pure Earth and co-author of the study, joins Hari Sreenivasan with more.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    According to a study published this week pollution of all kinds can be blamed for nine million premature deaths around the world every year. The study by the environmental nonprofit pure earth and published in The Lancet blamed air pollution for six and a half million deaths and water pollution for close to 2 million more. One of the study’s authors, Richard Fuller, joins me now to go over the details. First of all nine million people are going to say, wait how do you how do you calculate that?

  • Richard Fuller:

    How do you get to a number this big? It’s done using statistics that come out of two different organizations – World Health Organization in Geneva, and the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation in the University of Washington which is funded by the Gates Foundation. And what those folks do independently do is collect statistics on what people are dying from country to country and then look to allocate those deaths according to certain types of risks. So for example, when you are exposed to air pollution one of the things that could happen is you could get lung cancer. The same way you can would you get smoking. So these groups will allocate lung cancer deaths into five or six different causes and we’ll pick up all those that are related to pollution and aggregate them in this particular analysis.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Well one of the things that’s most striking is the distribution of where these deaths are occurring.

  • Richard Fuller:

    Ninety two percent in low and middle income countries. It’s a development issue. This is something that the West has looked after reasonably well. We still have pollution deaths here in the U.S. of course, but at a much lower level than you see in the poorer countries of the world. So it’s as if we put in all the right controls in the 50s and 60s. All these acts came about, on clean water and all, and we’ve been monitoring and controlling emissions. Overseas, they’ve industrialized and there’s also this enormous draw into cities where pollution can concentrate and they just haven’t had the same results that we have in terms of their own legislative and regulatory performance.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Even if you look beyond the horrendous totals that you’re talking about, a graphic says that three times more than HIV, lung cancer, and malaria, and also is 15 times more than people that are dying by war!

  • Richard Fuller:

    War and murder. All of the murders in the world all of the gun deaths and and and anything that’s violent 15 times more than that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And even if you set that aside for a second which is still ringing in my ears, this actually costs the kind of economic productivity of the entire planet as well.

  • Richard Fuller:

    We looked at it based on welfare costs and that number is just staggering – it’s 4.6 trillion dollars a year. So people are getting sick and can’t work and they’re dying before they’ve had a productive life. So there are costs associated to that with the economy. We when we calculate that in low and middle income countries, it’s 2 percent of the GDP. So if countries to focus on pollution and prioritize that, which of course is one of our main recommendations, that’s how much they could add potentially.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know there’s also been this common misnomer that countries have to go through some sort of a development cycle and this is the period where they’re going to be dirtier or it’s going to be polluting. But you’re also pointing out in this study that there’s actually economic opportunity and cleaning up.

  • Richard Fuller:

    Yes, you can have very strong solid growth that is effective and hits all parts of society in a very clean and green economy. So this old myth we need to knock it on the head. Busted.

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